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Did FDR 'Plan' the Attack on Pearl Harbor?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: October 29, 2013 
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I recently viewed an interview with Gore Vidal. Perhaps you've seen it.

In it he recalls visiting Eleanor Roosevelt the day before her death in November of 1962. Vidal asked her if the attack on Pearl Harbor had been planned by FDR. Her response was no, FDR had planned for the Japanese to attack our base in the Philippines instead. But as a precaution the three aircraft carrier groups in Pearl had been sent out on missions just be sure they'd be safe. FDR knew that the coming war would be an aviation war and the carriers would play a major role, a much larger role than the old battleships the Japanese still thought were key.

Before the attack FDR had voiced his hopes that the Chinese would defeat the Japanese and that the French army would destroy Hitler. When both dreams evaporated, he told his cabinet that the U.S. had to get involved in the the coming war. Since the isolationist movement was so strong in the U.S., he had to come up with some other way.

In the movie Tora, Tora, Tora which is widely respected as a historically accurate account of the attack, the Japanese Admiral who was in overall command comes down to the flight deck to speak to his pilots when they returned after the first wave of the attack. He asks if they saw the carriers. They all agree they saw no carriers. The admiral exclaims "What!" he's stunned. The movie provides no explanation for his reaction. Could it be that the Japanese had received spy reports that the carriers were in place? Had the U.S. flipped one or more Japanese spies and fed the Japanese false information?

In that same movie there's another scene where the two admirals in charge of Pearl Harbor are discussing a cable from the White House. The one says "It sounds like the President is inviting an attack!". The other responds with 'Yes, that's the impression I got too!" 

I'm left wondering. What is your view on this? Thanx in advance – nice site.

Jim Saboe

? ? ?

If you have solid proof that FDR knew, please share it. I don't have any such proof and until I do, I'll leave the conspiracy theories to those who insist on pursuing them.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
More Questions at Ask Mr. History

(Editor's Note: For more information on Pearl Harbor and why the Japanese fleet was able to achieve surprise there see "Attack on Pearl Harbor: Why Weren't We Warned?" (David Kahn, World War II magazine) and "The Spy Who Doomed Pearl Harbor" (Edward Savela, MHQ)

One Response to “Did FDR 'Plan' the Attack on Pearl Harbor?”

  1. 1
    Steve S says:

    It is HIGHLY unlikely that the carriers were not at Pearl Harbor by design of the President. US naval doctrine, at the time, was that the battlewagons were still queen of the seas. The carriers were to play a support role for the battleships.

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